I finished one of my favorite games recently, Metroid Prime. I started writing a review for it, but instead wound up writing something that reads a lot more like a blog post (and a review would have just been five stars and me gushing). So here it is as a blog post.
There are several games that someone might consider “landmark titles” for the Gamecube. Super Smash Bros. Melee, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Resident Evil 4 are frequently cited as some of the system’s top games, and some of the best games ever made. 2002’s Metroid Prime is cited just as often as those three and, for me personally, it’s easily the best game for the system.
Metroid Prime was the Metroid series’ leap into 3D. Many of the design decisions surrounding this game make plenty of sense now, sixteen years after its release, but beforehand it seemed like an oddity. Why on Earth would you want a traditionally atmospheric, exploration-focused game to be a first person shooter? If it’s a first person shooter, why is there a lock-on system that makes aiming trivial? Why does it move and control in such a weird, slow, kind of clunky manner? The answer is that it’s not really a first person shooter, at least not according to Retro Studios in the early 2000’s. They called it a first person action adventure sort of game. That description fits Metroid Prime much better than “first person shooter”, although mostly because the term “action adventure” is so vague. It’s essentially a different way of saying “Metroid Prime is a first person shooter, but not really like any other first person shooter”.
Genre definitions aside, Metroid Prime really is a weird game. You don’t aim with the second analog stick like you might expect – instead, you move forwards and backwards and turn left and right with the analog stick and hold L to strafe, much like classic Doom had strafe on a modifier key instead of dedicating left and right movement to strafe and turning left and right to different keys entirely. L also locks on to enemies, meaning that most combat in Metroid Prime consists of circle-strafing and cleverly putting cover between you and your enemy without losing a lock on. The jump button even turns into a Dark Souls-esque dash-out-of-the-way button if you’re locked on and moving. Over the years, I’ve heard a handful of complaints about this – I know that one Jeff Gerstmann has complained about the controls for Metroid Prime a few times over the years. But most people don’t seem to have a problem with them. For me – a frequent player of first person shooters on both controller and mouse – Metroid Prime’s controls fit like a glove. They work exceptionally well for everything that goes on in the game. The only real complaint I have is that manual aiming doesn’t work particularly well. You can hold R at any time and Samus Aran will put her hand on her gun and suddenly you can aim up or down, but you can’t move. Unfortunately, the game constantly pulls your aiming reticle back to its neutral position instead of just letting it sit wherever you move it, so shooting those war wasp nests while you’re being attacked by war wasps isn’t easy (among trying to hit other things in the game). Also, there’s a boss about three-quarters of the way through the game that you can’t lock on to. He’s extremely easy to cheese if you have enough missiles and an optional power-up called the Wave Buster, but otherwise players might have a hell of a time fighting him. This isn’t a problem in the Wii version of the game, where aiming and movement is more traditional, but it’s still a frustrating footnote when a mechanic that the rest of the game relies on is ripped out for one otherwise easy boss. Otherwise, the game’s controls do work extremely well and don’t even take that long to get used to, despite what you may think at first.
Metroid Prime is, as you might have guessed from its name, a Metroidvania. One of only a few 3D Metroidvanias, depending on your interpretation of the term “Metroidvania”. However, the game’s world design comes across as more Ocarina of Time-esque than Metroid Prime’s 2D counterparts. There aren’t any towns or merchants or anything like that and every area can be considered its own distinct dungeon, as opposed to the big wide-open world in the middle of Ocarina/Wind Waker/Twilight Princess. Unlike Super Metroid, however, the world isn’t really interconnected. In Super Metroid/Fusion/Zero Mission, you don’t always need elevators to go between areas. All the areas are interconnected in ways that let you go around those elevators, especially when you’re fully powered up. You can get from Norfair to Crateria through Maridia, for instance, without touching an elevator. Metroid Prime isn’t like this. Every area is its own separate, distinct location, connected to other areas only through elevators – which means through loading screens. Which means that the developers could consider the design of each area without also having to consider the designs of the other areas. If you want the northern part of Chozo Ruins to connect to the southern part of Magmoor Caverns, you can just put an elevator in Chozo Ruins and you’re done. I don’t think this is a complaint, really, but it does make the game feel more like Zelda’s isolated dungeons than Super Metroid’s interconnected world. I don’t consider this a negative, for the record. Just a note on its design. I do wish that they would have found a way to make this world more interconnected, though. Might have made that hunt for endgame artifacts more interesting.
Each of those individual areas works very, very well, however. Much like Dark Souls, I don’t feel like I really need a map that often. Areas connect in ways that generally make sense, items are hidden but not so hidden that you’ll ever find yourself looking through a guide wondering how anyone ever finds this stuff without one, and there are frequently audio or visual hints that something worthwhile is nearby. Visually, each area looks great, although they mostly fall into the standard video game location tropes - there are some ancient ruins, a rainy jungle, an ice world, a lava world, a mine, and an endgame underground area full of weird orange goop and annoying enemies. Each of these areas looks fantastic, though, and the game in general has held up exceptionally well visually. And it even runs at sixty frames per second throughout, too!
Apart from combat, one of the tools you’ll use most frequently is a “scan visor”, which you get from the beginning of the game and it’s never taken from you. You use it to gather information on basically anything – turn on the visor and anything nearby that’s scannable will have an icon over it. Enemies, devices, items, and bosses all have what are essentially compendium entries that you unlock by scanning them. They are frequently well-written and interesting without ever being overly long. You can also scan the logs of space pirates and read about their experiments, their clashes with you, and their plans for universal domination. OK, that last one is implied, not overt at all, but what is overt is the fact that these space pirates are just looking around Tallon IV for ways to make an unstoppable military force.
Far more interesting are the logs left behind by the dead Chozo that once inhabited Tallon IV. The Chozo are sort of the Metroid “ancient race”, only they’re not all that ancient – the last traces of them left the galaxy not too long before the series starts. The ones that lived on Tallon IV moved there to get away from all their technology and busy lives and basically lived as a bunch of hippies. Their logs reveal that their creations and their technologies on Tallon IV were centered around living with nature, as opposed to pushing it away to make room for their Chozo-made things (even though the Chozo Ruins seems like it used to be a monolithic city and not at all a quaint, humble one-with-nature place, but I digress). As you progress in the game and read more and more of their logs, you get a better picture of how the radioactive substance “Phaazon” destroyed their way of life and their planet. Their spiritual, philosophical way of living was no match for the decaying ecosystem and ever-more violent creatures roaming around the place, and they eventually died out. Only, they kind of didn’t. As you get even further into the game and read more of these logs, it seems like their spirits were hanging around, and were even aware when the space pirates arrived and when you arrived. Their spirits hid the artifacts that kept the titular Metroid Prime itself at bay so that the space pirates couldn’t get to it, and they leave you hints about the artifact’s hiding places on some stone pillars. These spirits are slowly going mad, however, so by the end of the game the Chozo Ruins area is chock full of angry, crazy, powerful ghosts that are determined to wipe out you and the space pirates alike. This means that throughout the game, you read about the paradise these aliens lived in, then their downfall, then the tiny flicker of hope that they have, and eventually the madness that’s overcoming all of them. Kinda dark stuff, really, and not something that had much impact on me the first time I played this game as a kid. This stuff might sound kind of trite in 2018, since “apocalyptic logs” have been done to death and rarely make sense. But in 2002, it was still something of a fresh and interesting idea, especially on consoles where no one played System Shock 2.
There’s not much else I have to say on the game, really. There’s almost nothing to complain about in this game. The game as a whole veers on the easy side and I wish the Hard mode was unlocked from the beginning (I played this on a modded Wii U so I could get HD output so I couldn’t use my old saves). The last third of the Meta-Ridley boss fight kinda sucks – he’s invulnerable unless he screams at you and he almost never screams at you so his last little bit of health takes forever to knock down, which is annoying when you consider that most of the boss fight is actually really cool and a lot of fun. I wish there was an RE4-esque quick turn around button, too. But these are all tiny nitpicks. There’s a ton of great stuff in this game and if you haven’t played it, go track down a copy and give it a shot. It’s well-worth your time!
I think that Horizon does some things right. The most obvious and most striking thing about it is that it’s downright gorgeous, and that’s coming from a guy who spends a lot of time playing PC games. Guerilla games have implemented some insane technical wizardry before, to make games like Killzone 2 and 3 look miles better than anything the competition could dream of, but this is something else. Breathtaking vistas are never more than a hike away, vegetation is plentiful and active and blows in the wind and moves whenever someone or something runs into it. Mechanical beasts with many moving, individual parts of their own populate these lands, providing both awe and fear to any player who hasn’t become an expert yet. And there’s no shortage of organic wildlife, either, though the biggest living animal you’ll ever shoot is a boar. All of this runs at a smooth, generally stable 30FPS on a slim PS4. I don’t know what resolution the base version of the game runs at, but every bit of this beautiful game is clear, largely unmuddied by aliasing or fog or texture pop-in. If you’re looking for a treat for your eyes, this is certainly a great candidate.
Looks aren’t the only thing Horizon: Zero Dawn does right. It’s also a lot of fun to just play. Aloy is a very responsive character – she can sprint, jump, roll out of the way, and slide with the best of them, and I have never felt like there was a noticeable delay in any of my actions. This smooth movement translates to combat really well – I never felt like I died because I couldn’t control things well enough. I was initially concerned that shooting only a bow-and-arrow for the entire game would be grating. Analog sticks, after all, aren’t generally so hot for aiming. Horizon is one of those games that proves that aiming can be good in console games, with just the right amount of auto-aiming and aim-assist to make your mechanical monster-slaying feel precise and accurate. If you ever feel like something’s too small or fast for you to hit, the game gives you some bullet-time to play with. It’s only a bit, but if you need a fast adjustment, it’s there and extremely easy to access. This all results in some gameplay that generally feels really good and often enough feels pretty great.
There are several ways in which the game falls apart to me. Most significantly, the story just doesn’t have any punch to it. When thinking about the story’s moving parts from a purely mechanical perspective, it all fits together well enough, and there are some elements that I’m generally interested in seeing through. For instance, I’ve only been through one ruin, but it was one of the highlights of the game for me so far, and it served to reinforce how much I’m interested in finding out what happened to the world. But it’s been difficult to maintain that level of interest when I have to put up with the Nora. The beginning of the game introduce the Nora as a representative of what civilization has become in this post-apocalypse. Aloy, the game’s protagonist, has lived her entire life as a Nora outcast alongside Rost, another Nora outcast. Nobody from the tribe will talk to a shunned outcast and Aloy has no idea why she’s an outcast. It seems like the Nora will outcast anyone for any crime, from violent murder (no problem with that) to even so much as visiting somewhere outside of the Nora’s sacred lands (you shun anyone who dares to have an interest in other groups? That sucks). The Nora Matriarchs see you talking to an outcast? You’re now outcast yourself. They catch wind that you went to an area called Devil’s Thirst? Say goodbye to the tribe! You were captured and dragged away from your homeland? Don’t even attempt to go back, the Matriarchs won’t accept an outcast. It’s annoying, and the Nora’s blind and superstitious fear of anything mechanical made them almost unbearable for me by the time I left their sacred land.
Fortunately, Aloy gets away from the Nora within the first ten hours of the game and you then start interacting with the Carja. In an attempt to make this succinct – the Carja used to be total dicks to everyone but they have a new king and are all really sorry and they just want to help everyone. It’s saying something that I find the Carja much more acceptable as people when they were bloodthirsty slavers and war-mongers just a few years before the game begins. Unfortunately, this doesn’t result in more interesting characters, only more bearable ones. I haven’t made it much further into the story than this, but thus far Horizon is a clockwork story. It’s ticking along with perfect time, but it’s not really doing anything more memorable than that so far. I really would like at least one character to show up that I’m interested in, but no one really has any charisma thus far. Erend is OK, I guess, but I also had to look up his name just to type in this sentence if that tells you anything.
Let’s go back to gameplay mechanics, all right? The moment-to-moment gameplay feels good, sometimes great, as mentioned above. But the larger character progression doesn’t. And this is more a problem with the “all-game” that every AAA game is becoming. You know, how every single player game released by a major publisher these days is a psuedo-RPG, with leveling and gear and crafting and none of it really feels like it comes together well. The same holds true for Horizon, though to its credit it comes together better than most. You fight, you do quests, you level up, every level gets you some more health, and every level gets you another skill point to dump into another ability. I would like to see this game take the extra leap and become an RPG-proper, where I can dump points into Strength and Dexterity and Vitality and stuff like that. As it stands, I don’t feel like leveling up itself is a good measure of how strong Aloy has gotten. Level 19 Aloy doesn’t feel that much more powerful than Level 3 Aloy, aside from having more health. Instead, all improvements have come from crafting new packs for new items (for the love of God, either let me hold everything or give me a carry weight, I hate going “I can hold three potions and three traps and thirty “resources” and five modifications and three outfits and so on and so forth) and from buying new weapons.
One of the reasons a studio might decide to go with a “psuedo-RPG” approach to developing a character might be to simplify things a bit while still having some form of character growth. Part of a proper RPG, after all, is examining and developing stats so that you can grow a character in a specific direction. But Horizon throws a lot of stats at you anyway and they’re all in the gear you’re using. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but these stats are mostly represented by symbols that the game flat-out doesn’t explain. Seriously, where the fuck am I supposed to find a list of these symbols, and what do they mean? I can guess fire, ice, and electricity, that’s easy enough, but there’s one that looks like a hand and one that looks kinda like a broken heart. What do those mean and why should I care? Can I please, please just get a flat damage stat? And maybe also a range and fire rate stat? Those things would be extremely helpful in determining that this merchant is selling a better bow than the one I currently have. Yes, “damage – range – fire rate” are all extremely boilerplate stats to put on a weapon, but they are so damn common and so conventional because they’re so easy to understand and require virtually no explanation. If you want weapons that do different things then you can definitely add other stats. You could, for instance, have elemental weapons that don’t do as much damage but are more likely to catch guys on fire. These same complaints apply to armor, too, here called “outfits” which is probably a more accurate term. Every stats needs a more clear explanation and it’s nowhere to be found, outside of loading screen hints and looking them up on the internet.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game I’ve been enjoying. I don’t doubt that and neither should anyone who might read this. At the same time, nothing about it is really “clicking” with me. I want to like this game, and nothing about it is pushing me away enough for me to really stop playing. There’s a promise of something I might love somewhere in here, but if it’s there, it’s elusive, and I’m not a hundred percent sure it’s worth it. I plan on playing more of it. If I ever find the special something I’m looking for in this game and it pushes me to finish it, then I’ll post another blog or a review of it. Otherwise, these thoughts might wind up being my final thoughts on the game.
What about you guys? Did anyone else feel this way about the game and later find something that made it way better?
After getting into Dragonball Fighter Z, my little brother decided to buy all of Dragonball Z Kai. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have a blu-ray player at the moment – my parents are borrowing it – so I wound up borrowing the discs from him and found myself way into Dragonball Z. I have finished all 167 episodes of Kai and I have opinions.
It’s Still Pretty Good, You Guys
Dragonball Z is a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch! Even after all these years, watching the larger-than-life story of Goku and Co. hasn’t become any less enjoyable. It’s a ridiculous story, packed with characters that can blow up mountains at a whim and sense “power levels” from the other side of the universe. If that sounds cool to you, then Dragonball Z will probably be your jam. If the idea of two beings of immeasurable power fighting to the death underneath a darkening sky among geysers of lava sounds like a bunch of cheesy, overdramatic bullshit... well, you’re not wrong¸ and you also probably won’t really like DBZ.
But it’s not just the crazy fights that make Dragonball Z so much fun. DBZ wouldn’t be anything without equally larger-than-life characters and the inherent comedy they bring about when on-screen. There’s a character named “Mr. Satan” who has become a world-famous martial artist in a world that loves fighting. Normally, the name “Mr. Satan” would be understandably offensive to some people, until you see crowds chanting his name as he steps into public view to give a rousing speech – the sheer audacity and absurdity of that makes it something special. The show in general brushes up against, for lack of a better term, “normal life” just often enough to make the contrast between Krillin cutting off space lizard Hitler’s tail and Krillin hanging around watching TV at Master Roshi’s funny and interesting. That sort of absurdity contrasted with something familiar is what makes this show for me, although the moments where the show goes full 100% absurd are also pure golden.
It’s worth noting that in the original version of this show, there’s an episode where Goku and Piccolo try to get driver’s licenses at Chi-Chi’s behest. Kai is the best version of this show as far as I’m concerned, but once you’ve finished the Frieza saga, it is well-worth taking the time to go track down that episode.
Can I Talk About Something First?
I do want to talk about each individual arc a bit, but I don’t want this blog to end on a completely sour note so I need to interject this bit somewhere.
Dragonball Z has two problems that really don’t fly in 2018. You’ve probably already guessed what I’m talking about just by reading that sentence. Please don’t make the comments section a mess.
I need to bring up Mr. Popo’s appearance and Master Roshi’s perviness.
It doesn’t really matter what Mr. Popo was meant to be. What matters is what we’ve got. What we’ve got is a drawing that looks like a racist caricature. What we’ve got is a racist caricature stuck in eternal servitude, forever fated to cater to the whims of whatever being currently serves as Earth’s “guardian”. What we’ve got is a fat black character with giant lips who appears behind a window and scares the ever-living shit out of Bulma. And there’s really no way around it by the time of DBZ – the Lookout serves as a sort of home-base for the heroes and Mr Popo is known and loved by all the characters. He doesn’t actually appear all that much in Kai, but he is a key part of a handful of plot points and thus needs to exist. If you go back in and re-color him, as 4Kids attempted to do, it just looks absolutely terrible.
That said, outside of his appearance Mr. Popo isn’t actually all that bad. He is presented as pretty damn strong, able to hold two Super Saiyan kids back at once. He also shows signs of intelligence that most other characters don’t – he’s got a long and excellent memory and he brings up a few solutions to a few different problems for the protagonists. This doesn’t make his appearance OK, but I wasn’t personally bothered by Mr. Popo all that much.
The other thing I want to talk about doesn’t get brought up quite so much, but Master Roshi’s actions towards women didn’t sit well with me. I wish they had been removed from Kai entirely – they should have been, and it seems the Japanese agree with me.
And unlike Mr. Popo, every last one of these scenes could have been removed with zero impact to the story, or the animation, or anything.
The most audacious scene in the entire show comes in when a plane crashes and Master Roshi falls into Android 18’s lap, with 18’s outstretched arm catching her five or six year old daughter. Master Roshi pushes his head up, apologizes, and then proceeds to motorboat Android 18 and fondles her boob with the child watching. 18 throws him into the side of the plane. Five minutes later, he touches a sixteen year old girl’s breast.
This is not funny. It is not OK. It’s played for laughs in the show, sure, but this is unacceptable. I’m not particularly uptight on this sort of thing, generally. In Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric falls in such a way that his hand lays on the breast of a woman he’s fighting. This is fine, because a) it was an accident, b) Ed is clearly embarassed by it, and c) the woman he’s fighting thinks it’s funny right before kicking him off of her. Here, we’ve got a pervy old man – who is otherwise presented as wise and old – purposefully doing unwelcome things to a woman. If you want to portray him as a wise old man who is also a bit of a perv, there are plenty of ways to do that without scenes like the above. You’ve already established that he’s a perv by noting that he hangs around a small house, on the beach, reading porn magazines and watching TV with a turtle and an anthropomorphic pig. It’s the most embarrassing part of a show where the final boss is an evil sentient piece of Dubble-Bubble.
It must be stressed that, over 167 episodes, you can count on one hand how often Master Roshi does this to someone. This doesn’t make it any more acceptable by stretch of the imagination, but if this is something that bothers you and you still want to watch DBZ, you won’t have to worry about it happening often, and almost all of it happens in the Buu saga.
Now that this is out of the way – and please, guys, don’t let the comments section become a cesspit of stupid comments about this subject and only this subject – let’s move on to some other stuff.
The Cell Saga Is Not Number One
Or two, or three, for that matter. I’d place it dead last.
That isn’t to say that the Cell Saga doesn’t have its moments. I enjoyed it, just as much as I enjoyed every other saga. Vegeta’s pretty great here. He’s a sniveling, snarky bastard throughout, not even caring about his son, the future version of his son, or the woman he had a son with. He’s there to, in short, fuck somebody up, and fortunately there are a few characters that Vegeta’s desire to fight can be directed towards. He’s still a bad guy here. Sure, this is where he starts moving towards being a good guy, but he’s nowhere near there yet. And his pride gets Vegeta in trouble several times here – Android 18 breaks his arms when he tries and fails to fight her, and Cell knocks him completely out after he let Cell transform.
And you can’t really talk about cool moments in the Cell saga without talking about Trunks’s introduction. I remember seeing the last of the fight with Frieza and the first of the Cell Saga as a kid and everything that happens when he shows up is awesome. He just shows up and mops the floor with Frieza and King Cold in the most badass way possible. Future Trunks doesn’t really get to do a whole lot after that, other than be completely frustrated at all of the other Saiyans in the show. He, along with everyone else, gets totally outclassed way too quickly, as happens far too often in Dragonball Z.
But large parts of this saga were either baffling or boring. I don’t have a problem with Vegeta letting Cell power up, that’s fine, that’s a good fit for where his character was at. But I found myself wondering why everyone can’t just stop and think about the Androids for a second. Sure, 17 and 18 won in a fight against everybody at once, but the Androids didn’t attack first. Trunks attacked first. Fine, that doesn’t prove they aren’t bad guys, just that they were ignoring you until you tried to fight them. But then the Androids let everyone live, they even ensure that one guy can still walk so he can get senzu beans to all the others. Wait, what? Unrepentantly evil psychopaths generally do not ensure that their enemies are going to be OK! Future Trunks, what’s going on, why are the Androids in your time murderous dicks and the Androids in our time nothing more than super-powered joy-riding car-stealing shoplifting teenagers? They don’t kill or even harm anybody besides Dr. Gero and the heroes that attacked them. Kami even points this out and Piccolo doesn’t want to hear any of it, he just gets a power boost and gets into a fight with them. Again. Even after fighting Cell first. You’d think that an apology and a discussion about Cell over a few beers would go a long way towards keeping Cell from his full power, but nobody thinks of that.
Also, Vegeta probably wouldn’t have any of that.
Much later in the same saga, we have Goku. Goku’s got a plan, right? Everyone seems to think he does and he kind of acts like he does, but he doesn’t tell anybody. His grand plan is to... send his nine year old son, who is apparently for some reason THE STRONGEST FIGHTER IN THE UNIVERSE, to fight the greatest threat in the entire universe.
Er... OK? Maybe tell your kid that this is the big plan before enacting it on him? Maybe that would have made the whole thing easier on him, especially when he’s getting stomped on by Cell and Piccolo rightly points out that he’s just a scared kid, despite all of the stuff he went through on Namek. And right before this, Goku even threw Cell a senzu bean because “he wants to see Gohan pushed to his limit”.
I thought the whole Gohan thing was pretty great as a kid, too, and a defining moment of the whole series for me back then. But these days, I didn’t think so highly of it. Even if I accept the above as a plot point, I’d be disappointed in the fact that little actually seems to happen in this fight. Gohan gets tossed around, gets angry, becomes a Super Saiyan 2, and tosses Cell around. Cell pukes up Android 18 and blows himself up at some point. The whole thing ends in a great big Kamehameha beam struggle and then done. Wrap it up and go home, let’s wish back everyone that Cell killed. It just all feels rather bland and boring, and Gohan’s “ooh, I’m so angry and can barely contain it, you better watch out!” thing doesn’t come across as badass anymore, it just comes across as an attitude that fits squarely into a bad nu-metal song.
Again, I overall enjoyed the Cell saga. Mr. Satan comes into play here and he’s pretty great most of the time. Vegeta’s character arc works really well here. Piccolo finally becomes a good guy without a doubt. But overall? I just wasn’t as entertained here.
The Majin Buu Saga Is At Once The Best And Worst That Dragonball Z Has To Offer
This might be the most difficult one to write about because I have such mixed feelings on it. There are parts of the Buu saga that I think are some of the best parts of Dragonball Z. The stretch of episodes from Gohan starting high school to Majin Buu getting freed is great. It’s probably one of my favorite stretches of Dragonball Z, so let’s talk about that for a bit, OK?
So seven years have passed since Gohan killed Cell. Gohan’s now a sixteen year old and his mother thinks he’ll be better off if he actually participates in society a little before going out into the real world. Which is understandable – after all, his only companions are his mother and his seven year old little brother, Goten, who remarkably acts like a seven year old instead of like an adult – I kept forgetting that Gohan’s supposed to be five years old on Namek. Anyway, this whole arc starts off with Gohan flying to school in Satan City on the Nimbus – he’s not flying himself because that might freak people out. Let that sit for a minute and then move on.
Gohan’s adventures in high school don’t last long. We get a setup where he and a super-strong crime fighting girl named Videl, Satan’s daughter, have both taken a great-power-comes-great-responsibility attitude towards crime in Satan City and started fighting it. Only, Videl doesn’t know who Gohan is because he’s in his Great Saiyaman costume – a costume which everyone except Gohan finds lame as hell. And it’s great! Videl eventually figures out his identity and blackmails Gohan into teaching her how to fly and into participating in the upcoming World Martial Arts Tournament. But Videl has no idea what she’s in for and she winds up witnessing Goten, a seven year old, blow up a boulder with nothing but an outstretched palm and a thought. Things only get weirder for her as she learns more and more about Gohan and his friends, and she’s in constant bewilderment. This is what happens when you throw a relatively normal person into the cast of Dragonball Z and it’s all great stuff! We get precious little of it before things go off the rails, however.
And go off the rails things do. In the World Martial Arts Tournament, a guy named Spopovich gets put into the ring with Videl and she gets savagely beaten in one of the most one-sided fights of the entire show. Spopovich won’t ring her out, either, he keeps her in the ring and standing so that he can continue wailing on her. By the end, she’s covered in bruises, blood, and broken bones, and it’s actually kind of unsettling. The only other time this show gets this unsettling is when Frieza does largely the same thing to Vegeta. The beginning of this fight marks the end of any hope I had for exploring Videl’s character some more, because after this she gets relegated to the same place that everyone else is – helpless side character. Shame, I really liked Videl. A few episodes after this, Android 18 gets her last time to shine as well, in a fight between her and a disguised Goten and Trunks, and later in a fight between her and Mr. Satan. And that’s where the brief glimmer of hope that female characters would be relevant went – down the drain, with Android 18 extorting money out of Mr. Satan and Videl in a hospital bed (she gets better soon, thanks senzu beans!).
Dragonball Z’s action ramps up again at a great pace. Vegeta, Goku, Gohan, and a new guy named Supreme Kai purposefully walk into a trap set up by the evil space wizard Babidi. Things spiral out of control and Babidi winds up bringing out Vegeta’s evil side again, pushing Goku and Vegeta into a fight that releases enough energy to awaken Majin Buu. I think this stretch of episodes is also some pretty great Dragonball – Dabura is a threatening enough villain, Babidi is an entertaining cackling madman, and the fights are better-animated than ever before. But there’s not a ton to really say about them. It’s well-paced shonen, with good fights, good villains, good character dynamics, and some nice plot twists to keep your attention.
And then Majin Buu himself is born. From here until Kid Buu shows up, you could convince me that Akira Toriyama was trying to just troll all of his fans, and when viewed from that angle, large parts of this are brilliant. Majin Buu starts off as a stupid being who can barely talk or think for himself, who is only interested in candy and can even turn people and things – including entire cities – into candy. It’s like Toriyama wanted this to be the most goofy and the most serious Dragonball arc, all at once. No episode passes without a gag or joke of some sort, and no episode passes without something awful happening to someone. It alternates between being really annoying and actually pretty funny, but by the time Fat Buu was taken out of the picture, I was more than ready to move on. Much like this blog post, the Majin Buu saga just feels like it takes forever to get through.
When Super Buu shows up, everything gets worse. We’re still getting a few jokes every episode, but more and more of them come from Gotenks, the fusion of Goten and Trunks. If Toriyama wasn’t trolling before, he has to be now, right? That’s the only way that Gotenks’s character is justifiable. I don’t like Gotenks, and a whole hell of a lot of time is spent on him while Gohan’s off getting a power boost that takes an insanely long time for no reason other than yet another over-long gag. Did I laugh sometimes at Gotenks? Yeah. But far more often, I found myself looking at my phone or ignoring the show because I was just ready for this bit to be over and for Vegetto to show up. When that eventually happens, I started paying attention again, but the fight between Vegetto and Super Buu also kinda isn’t great. The animation is fine, but not anywhere near what we saw between Goku and Vegeta earlier, and the fight lasts forever. And it gets dragged out even more than it should be.
Kid Buu shows up and saves all of that. Kid Buu saved the end of this show for me – the show finds a focus here that it didn’t have before and excises most of the gag stuff and the arrogance without getting rid of it completely. Here is where Goku and Vegeta finally start taking this fight seriously and finally start trying to figure out how to get rid of Buu. Plans get made, intense fights are had, entire planets are turned into rubble, the animation quality gets a bump again, and it all looks and feels great and intense. It doesn’t last very long, only a few episodes, but I’d say it lasted precisely as long as it needed to.
So what we’ve got are some of my favorite Dragonball Z episodes sandwiching the worst stretch of Dragonball Z out there, and in that “bad stretch” are a lot of actually-funny details and jokes surrounded by really annoying details and jokes. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the numerous plot inconsistencies in this arc, or how bad the Sumitomo score can be here, but this bit has gone on long enough and I want to talk about my favorite overall story arc.
The Frieza Saga Is Still One Hell Of A Thing
I’m going to just lump the Saiyan Saga and the Frieza Saga into one thing, because they kind of are (and I did the same things for the Android-Cell Sagas and the World Tournament-Buu Sagas).
This is my favorite stuff out of the whole show. There were no moments throughout where I was not entertained or engaged in some way, apart from Bulma and Chi-Chi being irritating characters that don’t actually appear all that often. This is Dragonball at its best, escalating from “this guy can blow up a mountain, he’s pretty strong” to “everyone can blow up mountains with ease, now we’re fighting a guy that can blow up a planet”. It’s chock full of humor and jokes and silliness and ridiculousness at just the right moments, and seriousness and emotion and anger and pride at just their right moments.
The Saiyan Saga is neither particularly long nor terribly complicated, even by Dragonball standards, but it does do a great job of setting up everything else in the series. If you’ve been listening to All Systems Goku, you’ll know that Kai pretty much skips introducing or explaining characters like Yamcha, Tien, Chiaotzu, Puar, Oolong, and Master Roshi, which is kind of a shame but they honestly play such little parts past the Saiyan saga that it doesn’t matter all that much. We’re given enough to know that these guys were once Goku’s rivals and are now his friends, and then we see them get wiped out with ease, establishing that things are going to get way crazier than they’ve ever been. And that promise is delivered, with the fight between Vegeta and Goku being one of the craziest up to that point in Dragonball.
So then everyone shows up on Namek and we see people that even Vegeta fears. Frieza’s right and left hand men, Zarbon and Dodoria, are about equal to Vegeta and Frieza himself vastly outclasses everyone combined. Later, we get the Ginyu Force, and each of those guys are hammy enough to carry an entire 80’s cartoon on their own shoulders. And the only people representing the good guys are Gohan and Krillin. And Bulma, I guess, but she’s thankfully just hiding out somewhere, rarely appearing to complain about something. Vegeta has to figure out how to gather all of the dragonballs without alerting Frieza to his presence so he can get his wish for immortality, but he thinks he has all the time in the world. Krillin and Gohan have to dodge Frieza and Vegeta and they know that the dragonballs will stop working soon so they don’t actually have that much time. This makes for a great mixture where at least one character knows something that at least one other doesn’t, and where at least two things are happening at any given time. If somebody is starting to do something boring – like, say, just traveling, we can always cut to someone else doing something else. And it all works for making some fantastic tension. It’s not just awesome visuals, here, it’s really good storytelling, where everything balances on an extremely tight rope and one wrong move brings everything crashing down. And that does happen. Spectacularly. As soon as everything starts falling apart, the Ginyu Force arrives, forcing Vegeta to admit that he will need Krillin and Gohan’s help to even stand a chance of defeating them, without knowing that Goku will be there soon.
Much like most of the fights in Dragonball Z, there’s not tons to talk about once Goku shows up. There’s fighting, and it’s all good stuff. However, by the time Goku shows up, you’re so invested in what’s going on that it makes the outcome and plot developments that much more interesting. They even find ways to make sure that the fighting isn’t just ye olde Dragonball punches and kicks and energy blasts, too, and when it is just that, there’s still something else going on somewhere to keep the audience invested in the plot.
All of this culminates in the fight against Frieza, which is pretty much the most iconic thing in Dragonball Z. Some people might complain that this fight lasts too long, and they’re not totally wrong. A few episode’s worth of stuff could have been chopped out, sure, and I wouldn’t have complained too much. Still, I have no complaints as it is. The Frieza fight slowly but surely escalates to a point where the planet is about to blow up, there are geysers of lava all over the place, the sky has darkened, and it feels like the end of everything. If I didn’t know there were more to the show, I’d assume they couldn’t go any crazier than this (Kid Buu does, but that’s much later in the show).
I can’t give this part of the show enough praise. Thinking back to how much I enjoyed the first fifty or so episodes is what pulled me through some of the rougher patches later on. Does the show get this fun again? Sure! I’ve outlined above that I think this show goes to some great places even after this. But it’s never this consistently great again.
Wow, I Wrote A Lot More Than I Thought I Would
If you’ve read this far, thank you! Very much! I’ve spent the past month and some change thinking about this show when I wasn’t watching it, writing bits and pieces of this whole post down in different places, and just letting Dragonball Z churn around in my head whenever I could. I loved watching this show again, and I had to get something out. Turns out a lot to say. I think this might be the longest thing I have written out since college, actually!
I still don’t really know how to end all of this, so instead of continuing to ramble, I’ll cap this off with a spoiler-block’d bit on where you can watch Dragonball Z, because it’s actually kind of confusing.
The way I watched it, and the way I recommend watching it, is getting Seasons 1-4 of DBZ Kai and DBZ Kai: The Final Chapters Part 1-3 on DVD or Blu-Ray, total 167 episodes. If you didn’t know, the Kai version of the show cuts out all of the filler and the English version has a new and vastly superior dub. This is expensive and is a hell of a dive if you’ve never seen DBZ and don’t know if you like it, so I can understand if you don’t want to go this way.
The much cheaper method is to go to Funimation’s website and watch the original version there, complete with all of the filler, totaling 291 episodes. The English dub here isn’t complete garbage, but it’s definitely not as good as the Kai version. As a plus, it uses the original soundtrack, so you get Cha-La Head Cha-La as your opening! You can watch it ad-supported for free up through episode 10, but then you’ll have to pay for one of their subscriptions, which are around ten US bucks a month. I’m not sure of the exact price.
I haven’t seen any of the movies but I’m pretty sure most of them are non-canon. If you’re up for it, watch The History of Trunks after that character gets his introduction. You won’t be lost if you don’t watch it, but it does fill out some details about that character and it’s worthwhile if you just want to see more Future Trunks. Otherwise, I’d suggest not watching the movies until after watching the show.
There are other ways to watch this show. You could buy the orange box sets of the original version, for instance. You might come across arguments on the internet about the merits of the Ocean dub and the Faulconer soundtrack and so on and so forth. If you’re new to DBZ, just stick with one of the two things I’ve listed above.
All right! So! I wrote one of these and didn’t finish it and then I wrote another and scrapped it and wrote a third that was just a reflection on the year and I think it’s maybe too negative to really post as a GOTY thing, especially since 2015 was such a great year for games. This time, I'm just making a top five list. That said, I do want to mention some games that from this year that I'm not so hot on. It is spoiler'd, so if you want to skip it all, you can, but I played a few real disappointing games this year. 2015 was overall great, don't get me wrong, but as I was reflecting on this year, these games just wouldn't get out of my head.
First up, and the one I feel most strongly about: Rise of the Tomb Raider. It seems like everyone else likes this game a lot and I'm in that position where I feel like I played a completely different game. This is coming from someone who thought the 2013 game was one of the best games of that year - like second or third best. I would like to replay it at some point to see if that opinion holds up - it probably doesn't, but I seriously doubt my opinion will change enough to bring it as low as what I think of this year's Tomb Raider game.
Brad argued strongly that Rise of the Tomb Raider was a more full realization of what Crystal Dynamics wanted to do with Tomb Raider. That's where I completely disagree - this game feels very unfocused and unrefined. This sort of cinematic Uncharted-esque set-piece heavy linear game depends heavily on pacing to keep up momentum. What we get in Rise of the Tomb Raider is frequent breaks in pacing for you to explore some psuedo open-world area that's full of collectibles. You can't even move the cursor on the map without it locking onto a collectible, and most of them are completely useless. They all contribute XP to a skill system, but a lot of those skills are useless (an icon appears when you have a headshot lined up? Oh, really, I need to be told that I'm aiming at the head?) and/or stupid (you need a skill to make explosives from gas canisters?) The 2013 game wasn't without this problem, but it was a far lesser problem - that game felt well-paced unless you, specifically, pulled yourself off of the beaten path to go gather useless collectibles and solve side tombs. Even worse, the game often decides to put collectibles in your path when there are enemies all around. You might have Lara walk up to a document or something twenty feet from a bad guy and pick it up and start listening to an audiolog. They're totally out of place and should have been completely rethought.
There's also less to the story of this game, and what's here is a predictable, cheesy story full of bad voice acting and terrible dialogue. There's nothing at all that makes this game's story worthwhile. The first game's story doesn't deserve any awards either, but what's in Rise is just delivered terribly.
That's not to say that the game lacks likable qualities. When the game starts to feel focused, it has glimmers of brilliance - the challenge tombs are easily the best parts of the game and you're doing yourself a disservice if you play this game and don't seek out and finish all of the challenge tombs. It's a shame they're not better woven into the story. When the game becomes a linear Uncharted-like game, it still out-Uncharts Uncharted, and still looks pretty cool doing it. I think this game would work way better as a truly open world game, where you have to solve tombs and gather items to unlock things and move forward. No skills or XP or RPG stuff. Just you, your equipment, a bunch of ancient puzzles, occasional long-dormant creatures, maybe a T-Rex or something, and some bad guys here and there. I think Crystal Dynamics can do it, they've just got a lot of fat to cut off.
Halo 5 sucks. OK, it doesn't really suck, it's actually pretty OK, but I type that and then something in the back of my head just says "no, Halo 5 sucks". They try to add some new wrinkles to the gameplay and that's all right, I guess, but I don't think it's even the best that Halo's gameplay has ever been. The story in Rise of the Tomb Raider was at least consistent and understandable, even if it wasn't great. The story here makes Halo 4's story look like a consistent and well-told masterwork, and this is coming from someone who thinks the first three Halo games have some pretty good popcorn sci-fi stories (and ODST and Reach are no slouches, either). The multiplayer's pretty good, at least, but I used to play Halo campaigns over and over again. I still sometimes replay the old ones. This one? I can't see myself touching its campaign much again.
Props to 343 for sticking to 60FPS, though, and I don't mean that in a backhanded sort of way. The Master Chief Collection means that almost every other Halo game runs just as well, but I'm glad a AAA game that isn't a racing or fighting game or Call of Duty shipped with such a high framerate. Make this more common. Please, devs, make this more common.
I don't want to say much about Fallout 4, really. It's basically a Bethesda game where the usual strengths weren't all that strong and the usual (myriad) weaknesses were a fair bit weaker. I actually want to give it another shot at some point, just to see if my opinion changes, but I played fifteen hours of this game. I bought it, downloaded it, played it for seven hours, deleted it, redownloaded it, played it for eight more hours, then just gave up. I couldn't do it. Nothing ever clicked with me.
Ah! All right! Now that we have that done, let's talk about some games that I really enjoyed! This is not the list, just some games I want to mention two games that I really liked but didn't make the cut.
Axiom Verge is pretty good. Axiom Verge is... kinda just a worse version of Super Metroid. All right, look, I know that Jeff says that Axiom Verge constantly subverts your expectations when it comes to what it's doing, but I can't agree with that. Too often, it felt like Thomas Happ was playing Super Metroid, writing down what different items do in that game, and then figuring out ways to achieve the same thing in a different manner here. That's a commendable thing to do - Nintendo sure as hell aren't going to do it, even if they do release another Metroid game - but I don't think it subverts much of anything. Instead, we've got a game that wears its inspiration on its sleeve and it happens to be very, very good at emulating that inspiration and maybe adding a few minor elements into the mix. One thing I must mention, however, is the dash - I kept accidentally dashing no matter which controller I was using and that got annoying, especially when the dash button could have been assigned to a shoulder button and one of the shoulder button functions could have just been a weapon. But then I'm the guy that always puts dash on L in Mega Man X because that's where it makes the most sense, guys. In any case, Axiom Verge is a very well-designed Metroidvania with lots of nooks and crannies and items and weapons and gadgets, most of which are put to very good use.
Mad Max is not a great game! You could safely argue that it's actually a pretty bad game! But those car chases are pretty goddamn awesome and the visual style it has going on looks pretty goddamn good and some of the combat is pretty brutal (although it doesn't play well!) I spent a few weekends playing this and only this for hours in a row. And I don't feel bad about that. I enjoyed my time with it. I didn't finish it and don't want to return - I got my fill of this game in 20 hours - but I had a lot of fun with this game. I really, really want to see this team at Avalanche make a car combat game, one that is nothing but car combat, where your character is the car and you never get out of it. With what's on display here as far as car combat goes, it could easily be one of the most awesome games my inner 12 year old has ever experienced.
Just Cause 3 was pretty good but not quite as good as anyone had hoped, I guess. I just don't have much more to say about it than that. I didn't have any problems with the PC version, but I still wound up feeling like it had some of the same problems that Mad Max had without the strength of an insanely awesome car combat system. Instead, we've got an insanely awesome movement system paired with some pretty good stuff blowing up emergent action. Although, for whatever reason, Avalanche doesn't seem too keen on giving you unlimited rocket ammunition, or at least way more of it. That feels weird in a game where you can carry around unlimited C4 and tether helicopters to one another. Still, they seem to have a pretty good understanding of why people liked Just Cause 2 and they did their best to encourage players to play around with mechanics to do things in the most extravagant, action movie, impractical way possible, and when it works well - and it usually does - it's still a pretty great thrill.
All right, all right, I'll get to the bloody list already.
5) Destiny: The Taken King
Full disclosure - I played Destiny for a little while on the PS3. Then I bought The Taken King on Xbox One. Then I played through Destiny again, and then through all of the DLC. Well, I haven't actually done much of The Taken King stuff, but the gameplay leading up to that has been extremely tight and extremely fun to participate in. Yeah, guys, I know, I haven't even seen the best stuff, but after a lot of time playing all of the previous stuff I had to take a break. I'm going to jump back in at some point and play some more, but what I did play was some of the most satisfying and involved shooting since... well, since Halo Reach. They have done an admirable job of making a console shooter that doesn't rely on cover and where aiming down sights is a something you do to get a better shot, not to make your weapon fire accurately enough to hit something five feet away. I had fun with vanilla Destiny, and I had even more fun playing through all of that content again only with a much better wrapper.
4) Pillars of Eternity.
Yes, it's one of these. You know. A CRPG. Only it's not impenetrable.
This should be much higher. I only played thirteen hours of this game. I loved what I played, I think it does such a great job sucking in anybody who wants to participate with meaningful, deep, complex content (in terms of writing, world design, and gameplay) without also feeling like there's a high barrier to entry. Seriously, if you've ever wanted to play a Baldur's Gate-esque RPG but have been scared off by overly long tutorial dungeons (fuck you, Baldur's Gate 2) or combat systems that don't explain themselves at all, Pillars of Eternity should be in your Steam cart. Like, now. It's probably the best game released this year, but I can't justify putting it much higher on my personal list when I didn't play much more of it. I was knee deep in it and then stuff came up and I couldn't get back to it until the busy Q4 started to roll in and I just never found the time. That sucks.
3) Assassin's Creed Syndicate
Variations on the cane sword are starting to become to me what the Kirkhammer is to Jason. And that's crazy.
This is a recent development. I played about two hours of Assassin's Creed II a few years ago and I thought it was boring. I've watched this series from the sidelines here and there, but never jumped in because of that. Black Flag looked interesting but I never bought it. I finally bought this one when I watched the Quick Look and thought "that cane looks pretty cool..." Evie does some messed up stuff to people with that cane. Seriously. The fighting animations might be some of the most brutal I've seen in a while. But even with that aside, the rest of the game is pretty great. Unlike Rise of the Tomb Raider or Mad Max, I don't feel like there's too much "icon barf", so simply opening the map doesn't feel overwhelming. I've found the stealth-y gameplay pretty intuitive and the combat, while basic, fun enough. It's a lot of fun to just run up to two Blighters, push Assassinate, and watch Evie cut one's throat, spin around and slice the other's throat, and do all of that in the span of maybe two seconds without really breaking out of a run. Sure, that's somewhat psychopathic, but our industry is built on controlling psychopathic superhereos with barely justifiable reasons for mass murder. I guess Jacob fits my playstyle a little more but Evie's a more interesting character.
Worth noting that I got a few hours into the story and then I spent the last, I dunno, ten or fifteen doing side missions and picking up collectibles. I don't know how the story turns out past getting the grapple hook, though I doubt it's anything particularly substantial. Also worth noting that, while this may be one of my favorite games of this year, I really can't see myself wanting to play one of these every year. If I had been playing these games since the beginning, I would be completely sick of them by now. Even if I had played every other one instead of every single one, I would have stopped before now. I'll probably play Black Flag at some point but I don't see myself becoming a fan of this series in general, just of this game. And cane swords.
2) Ori and the Blind Forest
You can launch yourself on those little lightbulb things. That's just one of many platforming mechanics that the designers used to make extremely effective, satisfying levels.
I like Ori a lot more than Axiom Verge. People keep talking about how gorgeous this game is, but I don't think I've ever played a game that's a better example of why game developers should focus far more on performance. This game runs as smooth as butter and, as a result, the simple act of controlling Ori is a joy in and of itself. The platforming and level design of Ori and the Blind Forest are both no less stunning - the whole Metroidvania-ish world is better-paced, better-designed, and better-focused than anything in Axiom Verge. It's not without its problems - the story goes from another cutesy wordless indie platformer to the most sickeningly saccharine thing I've seen since the third fucking Santa Claus movie and the timed chase sequences go from a pretty awesome test of skills (the first one) to a frustrating, baldness-inducing set of movements that require lots of memorization and perfection and luck (the last one) - but simply playing this game and exploring its world was such a huge joy for me that neither of those things bring it down much at all.
1) The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
I have no comment. Or taste.
For a game that so many forum posts heralded as the obvious game of the year, I'm sure not seeing this game top many lists. There's a whole lot of "well, I like the scope of the game and it's pretty and that Bloody Baron questline sure is some of the best video game writing ever but I didn't want to play past that because Novigrad". Well, yes, chasing Dandelion drags on for far too long, but there's a ridiculous amount of other things for you to go do while you're doing that. The city of Novigrad is chock full of things to do and people to see. And the whole world of The Witcher 3 is like that, really - not only is the game overflowing with content, it's overflowing with quality content. All those question marks on your map? All of those have, at the very least, some little note or something that adds to the world, something more than just a collectible or some treasure. Even Contracts, which would have just been some grind-y monster hunt in any other game, have unexpected twists and turns to them that you probably didn't expect. This game is abundant in everything fantasy, from small short stories to the weird and quirky to epic sidequests about monsters and magic to sidequests dealing with fantasy politics to treasure hunting and dungeon diving - it really does have it all. The actual act of participating in all of these things has been a point of contention here and there, but for what it's worth, I usually had no problems with the movement and usually found the combat satisfying. With The Witcher 3, I found myself embroiled in a huge, cohesive, extremely well-built world with writing chops far beyond what any of its contemporaries (save maybe Pillars of Eternity) have achieved. As with Skyrim, I love exploring a good fantasy world, and this is an excellent one of those. I finished it once and got the best ending I could have asked for - and I'm leaving it installed, maybe to finish it again and delay playing some other 2016 game that probably deserves some of my time.
And there's my Game of the Year list! One last thing... well, it's not much of a thing, but there a few 2015 games that I own but haven't played yet.
Metal Gear Solid V on Xbox One - I'm kinda scared to start it up, considering all of the shit I've heard surrounding how Konami handles FOB stuff. I never want to engage in that. I can totally just never even touch it, right? And I'll still be able to get upgrades and new weapons and I won't get to the end of the game and feel left out because I didn't want to bother with Konami's shitty business practices? Also fuck Konami.
Life is Strange - I never have been a huge fan of games that are more extremely elaborate choose your own adventure movies than games (note that I don't mean that in a derogatory way - that's just not my thing), but I bought Life is Strange and now everyone is putting it on their lists and I want to give it a shot. I know so little about it, other than the fact that there's time travel involved.
Undertale - thought I'm starting to suspect I won't like this one much because it sounds like a bunch of random stuff all feeding into some theme of not killing things? Of the game giving you some obvious way to not kill something? I dunno, I'll play it. Maybe blog about it like a lot of the internet seems to have done.
Galak-Z was a game that I was super excited about and then it came out and it had problems and by the time it came out on PC, I was busy playing other games and didn't want to mess with it. I own it now, though, and apparently it has an arcade mode that makes it not a roguelike and that's pretty awesome!
Austin Walker made an impassioned case for Invisible Inc. and I'm going to own that game soon thanks to him. Maybe it didn't get it on top of the list, @austin_walker, but it did get on the list and you did get at least one more person to play it.
Is the sixth of January really that late? I think I posted a GOTY thing last year or the year before way into January. Shouldn't Game of the Year stuff be done when the year is over anyway?
Justifying my procrastination aside, I'm not even doing a list this year. Well, there is a list, but it doesn't make up the majority of what I want to post about this year. It's just some stuff I wrote about some stuff that I really liked playing in 2014, whether it came out in 2014 or not. I tried to keep it in 2014 but I didn't play a ton of 2014 releases, mostly due to not having a job between when I finished college and when I got lucky and stumbled across something decent.
Anyway, here goes! Stuff I played in 2014. Let's kick it off with something that turned a decade old in 2014!
The “My Opinion Of This Used To Be Lower” Award Goes To… Halo 2!
I’m a Halo fan. I like all of the games to varying degrees. Halo 2 used to be one of those lower degrees, along with ODST. Earlier this year, I got the itch to play some Halo, so I played through all of the first game’s Anniversary edition – and then I played through all of the other first person Halo games (Wars and Spartan Assault aren’t included – I own Wars but never got into RTS’s and Spartan Assault looks like a subpar game).
Halo 2 still has some flaws. The first three levels are pretty stunning and actually quite excellent. The rest of the game never quite measures up to the first three levels – it doesn’t keep up that pace, it doesn’t keep up the interesting gameplay design, and some parts of it drag. But you know what Halo 2 does do well? Worldbuilding. Halo 1 introduces you to a single Halo ring in the middle of space and pits you against the Covenant and the Flood, and there isn’t really a singular antagonist. Guilty Spark kind of is, but he’s really just “the guy between you and destroying the actual bad thing”. Halo 2 not only gives the Covenant a face, but it also expands on their social hierarchy, gives you some a bit of insight into their government, and in general shows you a lot about them – and then upsets all of that to kick off a schism that separates the Elites from the Covenant. Keep in mind, this is only half of the game. About four hours, give or take an hour, are spent with the Arbiter and the Covenant side of things, and in that time we see so much about that side of the conflict, how it works, what its goals are. It’s not that these things are complicated, but they are shown to the audience very, very well, and not told to us with a lot of exposition. Master Chief’s side of this story is good, too, but it’s the Arbiter bits that I think make the Halo 2 campaign more memorable, and it’s mostly because of the Arbiter’s story. It helps that the Arbiter’s story in this game is actually a full-on story arc and not just a middle chapter with no real solid ground gained. Master Chief’s conclusion comes at the end of Halo 3, all of The Arbiter’s character arc is done here.
For the record, the rest of the Halo games are still pretty good, and I still think Halo 3 ODST is the least of them.
The “Game That You People Said Was Good For Some Reason” Award Goes To… Bravely Default!
OK, about that title, some people really like this game and that’s fine. I really, really wanted to like this game, but I can’t. It’s got a pretty bland and predictable story, and the only part that could be considered unpredictable requires you to essentially run through a Cliffnotes version of the game four times in a row. I knew about that before buying the game and said I’d be OK with it in the interest of good mechanics and… well, the mechanics here aren’t necessarily bad but they sure as hell ain’t no (insert Atlus’s entire 3DS output here). The “braving and defaulting” idea is great in theory but it mostly just means I’m braving four times for 250 damage each, rather than attacking once for 1000 damage, or something along those lines. Technically I’m going four turns in a row, but practically I never saw a reason to, and boss battles were never particularly hard. I just found the whole thing so blandly designed. Except for the art and visuals. Give credit where credit's due, this game looks absolutely fantastic. I would probably purchase a PC release just to play this game in a much higher resolution on a bigger screen. The game isn't overall bad, just disappointingly bland.
Consider the two Digital Devil Saga games runners-up, but those games have those SMT mechanics and those mechanics and the gameplay design using them are still pretty damn good.
The “Maybe Bravely Default Is Good But I Didn’t Think Much Of It Because I Was Comparing It To Giants” Award Goes To… Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 Golden, Tied
If you’re reading this, chances are you know what Persona 4 is. I finished Golden earlier this year, after watching the entire ER and playing P3FES last year, and like seemingly everyone else I thought P4 was pretty great. At this point, it can easily be considered one of those JRPG greats that everyone who ever tries JRPGs needs to give some time to, right behind Chrono Trigger and FFVI. Some people think the dungeons in Persona 4 are boring, and that’s fine, but I’d be happy if they made an entire Persona game focused on dungeons. Wouldn’t that be great? They could even make it a tile-based throwback in the vein of Etrian Odyssey or something. Persona 4 Golden’s turn-based combat feels on-par with SMT Nocturne’s to me, in terms of balance and strategy. Bump P4 up to hard like I did and I wouldn’t blame you for saying that you think P4G’s boss fights are actually better than Nocturne’s, and that’s one hell of a feat. It does get a little too grindy at times and never make me go back to find a fucking key in your random dungeon, but P4’s combat remains satisfying and challenging throughout on Hard.
The “I Should Have Played More Of This” Award Goes To… Legend of Grimrock 2!
No, really, I should have. This game came out right around the time I got a full time job and my life started picking back up – not a good time to dive into a slow-paced very long atmospheric dungeon crawler. But what I’ve played shows that it’s a damn, damn, goddamn good one of those and you need to play it if you have even a passing interest in puzzles or RPG’s or good things. I also need to play it and I’ll get to it as soon as I finish messing with…
The “Game I Definitely Should Have Bought Instead Of Titanfall” Award Goes To… Dark Souls II
I’m still playing this game, I’m getting close to 20 hours in and I’m really enjoying it. Dark Souls I is the kind of game that I should love. Dark, oppressive, lonely atmosphere? Exploration? Remarkable difficulty? Not a particularly traditional story? Sounds a lot like Nocturne! I love Nocturne! And sounds a fair bit like Super Metroid, too! I love Super Metroid! But I never did. I could talk about why at length, but it basically boils down to me getting invaded. I don’t want any part of that, and the idea of another human being popping into my lonely game to stab me in the back sounds like the antithesis of why I care to play such games in the first place. I wound up buying Dark Souls II and putting the .exe behind a firewall so I'd never have to deal with the online stuff. Why didn't I think of that before?
Dark Souls II is pretty great. Personally, I think I've settled on using Vengarl's armor and a fully upgraded Greatsword for the rest of the game. I'd like to use the Smelter Demon's sword but a) not everything is weak to fire and b) the stuff to upgrade it is rare, so the regular-ass, notched, worn, old, Greatsword +10 is what I'm using. I also want to be fast, so I'm not using heavy armor at all. Instead, I've got 40 points in Vitality at the moment and a ring that raises my equip load, so I've still got a medium roll. As soon as I got enough strength to wield the Greatsword, I actually went naked for a few hours so I could keep a faster roll until I got my Vitality up enough to equip some real armor.
A side note - I thought you guys said this game was hard. I just got the King's Ring and I've only had trouble with The Pursuer and The Smelter Demon so far. I have finished off most other bosses in one, two, maybe three tries. I'm not trying to go "hey, I'm a badass!", but if there's one complaint I have about Dark Souls II, it's that a lot of bosses feel the same. Many of them feel like The Pursuer again. If I'm not dodging things the same way I dodged The Pursuer's attacks, I'm fighting bosses whose attacks take so long to wind up that I can go make a sandwich before I have to react. The eight and a half hours I played of Dark Souls 1 was way harder than anything I've come across here. Some regular enemies have given me trouble but not tons. It's not easy, certainly, but it's not brutally punishing either. Just be patient and pay attention to when you should hit.
The “Best Video Game Released in 2014” Award Goes To...
If you’ve seen me post anything about Shovel Knight, it’s probably been associated with the phrase “best game released this year”. And it is. It’s so great. My first console was actually the SNES so I played the successors of the games that Shovel Knight was based on, so maybe my view is a little bit different? In any case, Shovel Knight pushed all the right nostalgia buttons without feeling like it was pandering to me with references and ideas from those older games. Instead, it took some things that worked, refined them greatly, and put them in a game that is designed and plays beautifully. It’s a must-play in my book. I just don't have any complaints about it whatsoever, and I don't really want to bore you with things you've heard about Shovel Knight elsewhere.
The “2nd Best Video Game Released in 2014” Award Goes To...
Basically a runner-up category because Wolfenstein The New Order stuck out to me almost as much as Shovel Knight this year. FPS games with good stories have become fairly common, which is surprising when considering how meatheaded the genre is often assumed to be. Wolfenstein The New Order takes the original FPS meathead and turns him into a human. He’s still a walking death machine, but he’s a walking death machine who seems like an OK guy, and sometimes you really could see him having a BBQ one sunny Saturday afternoon, with a few kids running around and a cold beer in his hand. This is completely at odds with practically every other war hero in every other video game, ever. And the game does this while still being silly and gory (though, frankly, I found the gory parts mild in comparison to some other shooters, but then I played Brutal Doom around this time).
It gets the gameplay right, too. It's more than just competent, it's a downright blast to just play Wolfenstein: The New Order.
My only real complaint with Wolfenstein is the moon level. You don't have much ammo with your regular weapons, so you're forced to use energy weapons. This would be fine if you didn't have to keep running back to the damn chargers on the wall - none of the weapons really hold all that much ammo, so you're chained to recharging it during a battle instead of the fun running and gunning you've been doing since the beginning of the game.
The “Best Mod I Messed With in 2014” Award Goes To… Brutal Doom
I can't find a picture that is a) representative of Brutal Doom and b) something that won't get me banned, so here's someone painting a room red instead. You pretty much do this anyway.
Have you ever played a game where you can almost literally paint the walls red with blood? Would you like to make a place look like the lawnmower scene from Dead Alive/Brain Dead/whatever the fuck it’s called? Then have I got the mod for you!
I am not often bothered by gore in video games. It’s so fake and over the top, more so than most movies would ever even try to be. I played Brutal Doom for a few hours and walked away from it more than a little bothered, but then I came back to it. It started off disgusting, and it remained disgusting, but I was kinda fascinated at just how far SgtMarkIV had gone in this fairly popular Doom mod. I wound up finishing Doom 1 and 2 with the Brutal Doom mod and I still fire it up from time to time for what might be the most ridiculous gore I’ve ever seen in video games. God, it’s such a fucking mess.
The “Here’s A Fucking List Anyway” Bit
5. Titanfall – I probably won’t ever play Titanfall again. The number of people using the Smart Pistol just seems too high, and I was too frustrated the last time I played it to care. It feels like they nerfed the R101C so that it’s kinda useless against the Smart Pistol and nothing else feels useful against guys using the Smart Pistol. So now I’m running around trying to shoot guys who don’t even have to aim and that’s pretty frustrating, whereas before I could usually kill them just before they got a lock on me. But towards the beginning, when my complaints about the Smart Pistol weren’t so prevalent and I was running around, weaving between Titans, taking them out on foot, killing other pilots, mowing down dumb AI enemies – man, that was fun. And exhilarating. And tense. And exciting. If they make a Titanfall 2 and they remove the Smart Pistol, or nerf it to the point of uselessness, count me in.
4. Dragon Age Inquisition – This game isn’t good enough to change the minds of those people who were saying that this was Bioware’s “last chance”. It is good enough to make most of them grumble while they play it anyway, for God knows what reason. Full disclosure, I haven’t finished the game, I played about 25 hours and then gave it a break to play the next game on this list. Still, I bought this to run through magical fantasyland with some “dark” tendencies (read: not really dark, just fantasy-ass fantasy) and that’s exactly what I got. Huge, pretty, open areas, lots of stuff to do, some RPG stuff to mess with, crafting, etc... you know what? Dragon Age Inquisition is kind of overstuffed and nothing in it is stellar, but there is something in here for anybody who even remotely has an interest in open world RPG’s and I like a lot of the stuff in here, so count me in. It’s not stellar in any department but it’s pretty good in most and it’s basically crack-cocaine to anyone who wants or needs to do everything in an area before moving on.
3. Dark Souls 2 – I’ve described this one above
2. Wolfenstein: The New Order – again, described above.
1. Shovel Knight – So what if it’s “another indie platformer”? This game is proof that 2D platformers can still be relevant and good and fun and they need to remain a thing, so play it. Really. It’s so great.
Some Other Stuff
All of this is spoiler'd because this is actually a fairly long blog post and I don't want to make it seem longer, but there's more I want to write about!.
What did I miss?
Not so much "missed" as "haven't got around to playing much of yet".
I own Divinity, Transistor, Wasteland 2, The Banner Saga, Thief, and the PC release of Valkyria Chronicles, most of which I plan to play through at some point. Wasteland 2 is iffy. I feel like that game wastes a hell of a lot of time doing stuff. Can I fast travel to places I've already been? Can this lockpick be a "hit if I have the skill, miss if I don't" sort of thing? Can I have a medpack that heals everyone instead of waiting for some bar to fill up? I like the combat and the exploration and the setting and the writing is even pretty good but I don't really want to wait... and wait... and wait for seemingly trivial shit to happen. It's not much waiting in individual spurts, but you might spend ten minutes waiting for shit to happen for, say, thirty minutes of play. Or, well, that's what it felt like, I totally just pulled those numbers out of my ass.
The rest of that list consists of games that I'm generally interested in and I'll probably beat the ones that are twenty hours or less. The only game 2014 game I can think of right now that I don't own yet and still want to play is Alien Isolation. I may own South Park one day but, eh, I feel like I can live completely without South Park.
What am I doing in 2015?
Working! Moving out! Maybe finding a better job! Oh, gaming-wise. For January, I want to finish up Dark Souls II and play Resident Evil later in the month. I'd like to sandwich Splinter Cell Blacklist in between those two just to break up all of the darkness in both. To be fair, Dark Souls and Resident Evil have very different forms of "darkness", but they're both fairly grim in their own ways and I want to play something a little lighter. Never played a Splinter Cell game before, so Blacklist will be it if I manage to finish Dark Souls II before the 20th, which I probably will.
...oh, what's actually coming out in 2015 that I want to play? Nothing off the top of my head that I'm certain will come out this year. Persona 5 and Doom 4/The Doom/Doom 2015/whatever are both supposed to come out this year, but we haven't really seen much of either and I'll believe that Doom is out only when I'm holding it in my hands. The Witcher 3 is supposed to be coming out and it looks cool but I couldn't really get into The Witcher 1 or 2, as much as I tried with both.
Anyway, that's my 2014 year in gaming! I hope you enjoyed reading it, I hope 2015 is one of the best years this community has ever seen, and I hope 2015 has some way better games than 2014 did! Wait, you didn't think I was going to be the only guy writing up something about 2014 without mentioning how it kinda sorta wasn't so hot overall, did you?
I have, for a long time, held Skyrim as my personal favorite game of the generation. To this day, it's a bit of a divisive game - some people claim it's pretty boring, some people strongly dislike its mechanics, etc. Of course those are valid opinions and I understand them, but I wanted to write down what I liked so much about the game. So I did. And I wasn't going to post it to Giantbomb, but after finishing it I thought I might go ahead and do just that. So, here it is.
I can’t sit here and tell you that Skyrim is a perfect game. Far from it. You even have good ground to stand on if you want to make a case for Skyrim as a bad game. I understand those reasons, I could elaborate on them myself in an article as long as this one if I so wished. Deep as they are, though, Skyrim’s flaws are easily ignored by me in favor of its world.
Skyrim is a place of rolling plains, shimmering ice caves, dark ruins, and great mountains. Scaling one of these mountains allows you to see a majestic vista below, full of trees, snow, plains, towns, cities, and other mountains off in the distance. Look up at night, and you’ll see an aurora borealis, a northern lights display that falls short only of the real thing. Wait until the morning and you can see the sun’s brilliance shine across those snow-capped mountains and you’ll find rays of its light shining through a tree’s leaves. On a grand scale, Skyrim is the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen. That I can be a part of this world, and I can go anywhere and do anything, only adds to that grandeur and that beauty.
Up close, Skyrim doesn’t lose any of its luster. Every plain, every mountain, every city, every cave, and every ruin has its own individuality. No single place in Skyrim is an exact repeat of another, save for perhaps the inns outside of cities that pockmark the landscape. Making a bee-line from one place to another is almost impossible as you stop to discover new places to visit and new dungeons to dive into. Towns and cities have many citizens walking about, talking with each other and going about their business. Go into Whiterun and you can hear characters chatter about the feud between two big families in the town, talk about the state that Skyrim is currently in, a woman complaining about her husband never leaving the Jarl’s palace, and more. Peek your nose into a dungeon and you’ll find various treasures, monsters and traps. If you’re lucky, you might find something that reveals a new quest or a new Shout or any other number of things that might catch your interest.
I am no Elder Scrolls lore expert, but a defense of this game cannot go by without some mention of the story and the lore. You can find books scattered about the world that tell you what kind of stories exist in Skyrim. These books encompass practically anything that can be placed between two covers, and there you’ll find plenty of information about gods, history, characters, and even details on how to, say, work a special forge near Whiterun. Outside of the written word, you can talk to practically anyone to hear opinions on Skyrim’s war, current events, gossip, and more.
The final detail I must describe is this game’s music. Previous Elder Scrolls games have had a largely triumphant soundtrack. Morrowind starts with triumph as you emerge from the boat in shackles and ragged clothes. Oblivion’s music tends to have an air of whimsy about it, especially some of the town tunes. Both of these soundtracks are great, but Skyrim’s gives a distinct feeling of bleakness. It is not a soundtrack without triumph, but it also isn’t one without sorrow. It’s largely made up of slower, deeper sounds that really help to deliver the world’s desperation.
And if you’ve made it this far, then here is where I must wrap all of this together. What makes Skyrim different from other RPG’s? After all, doesn’t practically every RPG have towns that try to give off a feeling of a living, breathing community? Can’t you talk to everyone in Dragon Age Origins? Doesn’t Just Cause 2 have some brilliant vistas of its own? Doesn’t The Witcher 2 have those small details? Yes, but none of these games come together quite like Skyrim does. There’s a certain atmosphere of bleakness and dark times in Skyrim that no other game I have ever played gives off, and it’s only compounded by the northern, harsh conditions that these people live in and the uneasy, constant threat of another war erupting. You can spend all your time diving in caves if you want to, but you would be ignoring the larger conflict sitting above ground. I’ll be the first to admit that actually participating in the conflict between the Stormcloaks and the Empire isn’t a great quest, but the talk that you hear from citizens surrounding it does so much to cement the world. The discussion of troubles and the harsh world that these people live in does just as much to tell you that, even without a war, there would be considerable issues to deal with. And yet these people keep living on, and Skyrim does a fantastic job of placing you among them.
In any other form of fiction, this would seem cliché, but Skyrim places you right in the thick of it and it does so in the best way I’ve ever seen. Are any of its parts perfect? No, but Skyrim gives off such an aesthetic brilliance and absolutely nails its bleak atmosphere and tone so well that I can’t help but forgive its inadequacies, and its high points appeal to my own specific interests so directly that I can’t help but call it my favorite game of this generation.
...well, first off, note the wording on that. There are some 2013 games on here, but when making a top ten of 2013 list I found myself including entries that I kinda didn't think were GOTY material. Good, yes, but there were way better games I played this year that I wanted to give more attention, so some of these are games that I finished for the first time this year but did not come out this year. And some I haven't even actually finished, I've just enjoyed what I've played so much that they belong.
For the record, I did play The Last of Us, and I did enjoy the story and the writing and the cutscenes a whole lot. But I didn't enjoy significant portions of the gameplay, and I have a hard time putting a game on an awards list when its actual gameplay has problems. It's definitely well-worth playing for the visuals, the story, the environment, tone, setting, atmosphere, and pretty much everything except gameplay.
So... here we go!
10) Grand Theft Auto V
This dude was seriously considered for character of the year. And he won. I hate this guy.
I haven’t played much of the GTA series before. I’ve played a few hours of the fourth game and about half an hour of one of the PS2 games on my cousin’s PS2 a long time ago. And about five minutes of one of the PSP ones. And I haven’t really finished GTA V yet. Hell, I haven’t even quite made my way to the second heist yet, so maybe I haven’t made my way to the best parts yet. I haven’t made it partly because college tends to get in the way of long-ass games like this, and partly because I spent a lot of my time simply admiring the game world. I rarely pay attention to the environments in open-world games and couldn’t picture much of their worlds in my head, but for GTA V I can think of several places. And not big places that you’re constantly visiting, either, just something as simple as a pool in a backyard or some places in the northern parts of the map or some bit of the highway that I ran off while policemen were chasing me or the sewers that I spent two hours doing loop-de-loops around. It’s hardly perfect (surely Rockstar can afford someone who can write better console aiming code so you don’t have to default to a lock-on? And why does controlling planes and helicopters fucking suck?), but then few games this massive are. And here, the world is both massive and finely detailed and full of crazy, strange, weird, and worthwhile things to do.
9) Shin Megami Tensei IV
Spoiler Alert: This is Lucifer, which makes SMT IV the stealth most sexist game of this year.
My opinions on this game have fluctuated quite a bit. I think I suffered from hyping myself up too much. Its predecessor, Nocturne, is brilliant and I loved every inch of that game. This one... not so much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s number nine for a reason, but that comes with the caveat that the story falls apart at every seam and the first and last five hours of the game are weirdly unbalanced in that the former is very hard and the latter is very easy. The middle thirty five hours or so of that game, though, are pretty great in both mechanics and atmosphere. The game does a really good job of showing you the oh-so-perfect, idealistic (or so it appears) upper world of Mikado and the chaotic, post-apocalyptic literal underworld of Tokyo. And the game also does a great job of presenting you with interesting demons, bosses, dungeons, and treasures to find. I’m currently on my second playthrough of this game and I’m completely disregarding the story. There’s no payoff there, but there’s tons of payoff in filling out my Demonic Compendium and fighting bosses and other demons and doing a lot of the sidequests that I didn’t do before.
8) Fire Emblem Awakening
If you're one of those people that's squeamish when feet are shown, then this game is for you. No feet, whatsoever. Except maybe in those animated cutscenes, in which case nevermind.
This was the first turn-based strategy game that I ever really liked. I’ve tried X-Com and Disgaea since then but, really, this is the one that I’ve come back to a few times. Like a few other games on this list, I haven’t finished this one, but it’s not for lack of playtime. My 3DS says I’ve got 60 hours of this game logged, about 15 of which were actually my brother’s. I’ve just been doing all of the random encounters and working on the paralogues and marrying people off. The only real issue it has, for me, is the way it sometimes tosses new enemies into the battlefield, which sometimes feels a little cheap. It’s also an issue because I like picking the battlefield clean of enemies. But, hey, that’s not a big deal, especially considering how great the rest of the game is. Every character is given a personality, a unique name, and some dialogue; even though the characterizations are usually pretty thin, it’s enough to make you feel bad when one of them goes down. I played on Casual because I don’t like restarting my 3DS whenever someone died, but I still felt bad when someone went down just because I knew it was my bad playing that killed them. I also felt great when one of them succeeded or got really lucky, especially against a powerful enemy.
7) Tomb Raider
You'll want to protect her, probably because it's the easiest job you'll ever have to do.
So the story is competent at best and there’s some dissonance between the way they want to portray Laura and yadda yadda yadda. Did you see the arrow that just went through that motherfucker’s head and caused him to do a backflip? Awesome! Oh, yeah, and solving tomb puzzles and whatnot to make a WW2-era shotgun upgrade into a modern shotgun is pretty goddamn game-y but then everything in this game is pretty game-y when you think about it. And that’s one of the things I loved about this game – it didn’t try to hide game-y parts in service of a narrative that I didn’t care about. It was proud to have campfires that you can fucking teleport between, specifically climbable walls, curiously hidden tombs, loads of collectibles, etc. And on top of that it was one of the best third person shooters I’ve played this generation. I like it because its gameplay was solid and it then built interesting set pieces on top of that, not because its gameplay merely worked well enough to get through all of the impressive set pieces. It’s Uncharted done right, and it’s damn good.
6) Final Fantasy XII
Yes, it's true. This man has no dick.
Never thought I’d put this on an awards list. Neither the mechanics nor the world open up for about 8 hours. I played it off an on for an hour or two once or twice a year, for two years. And then, suddenly, the game becomes pretty big and you’re going places and you’re doing things and you’re progressing the story and, before you know it, you’ve got 30 hours invested into this game and you’re ready for more. I only started playing this in November and haven’t managed to quite finish it yet, but I’ve found myself very interested in the story and most of the characters and the gameplay. Sure, it plays itself some, but you’re really just setting up parameters that do what you would have done anyway. I can totally see why you wouldn’t like this game, but I really enjoy it.
Also, you have to roam around towns as Vaan, which becomes far more bearable when you just think of him as the go-getter while everyone else stops at the local Bar and Grill.
5) Persona 4 Golden
Truly a masterpiece in writing.
You guys know. C’mon. I don’t even need to describe this game. I’ve seen all of the Endurance Run but haven’t finished the game myself, I’m about 25 hours in and in Rise’s dungeon. One thing I’ve noticed while playing this and P3FES is the super quick gameplay loop in which this game runs. You can pick it up and play it for fifteen minutes and get something done and it just feels a little satisfying every time. You’re not going to play it for an hour and not make any headway against a tough area of a game or feel like a level is too long. If you’re tired of the dungeon you’re in, Goho out of there and do a social link or two, then come back.
4) Persona 3 FES
I don't know if Persona 3 wins the "most emo art online" award, but it must certainly be in the top ten, what with the main character looking like he puts Fall Out Boy on repeat, kids shooting themselves in the head, and an emotionless robot-girl who is in a vulnerable, helpless-looking position plastered all over approximately 3/4 of the official art for the game.
Well, I like this game for largely the same reasons that I like Persona 4, except I actually think the writing and story here is better. Not tons better, but I think it holds up a little better under scrutiny and doesn’t immediately make you question motivations and such in the last few hours of the game like P4 does. Persona 4’s dungeon crawling mechanics are better, but there are some really great fights in Persona 3 FES and the final boss was one of the most memorable in a long time.
3) Bioshock Infinite
Pictured: Six month's salary of your average working class person.
This is, no joke, the only game that I finished twice this year. I can point out some problems with its gameplay, and many people have pointed out the issues with its story, but I don’t care. I was quite wrapped-up in its finale and was pretty satisfied by its ending, even after giving it some thought. It was something of a brain-bender and it’s got plenty of holes, but I don’t think that Ken Levine was looking to “plug the holes”. I think he was trying to give the story’s ideas and characters some conclusion to this whole thing, and in that I think he succeeded. Besides, like Jeff Gerstmann has said, anytime you deal with either time travel or dimension hopping you get logic holes and issues. Here, there are both.
I also get to slide on skyhooks in a city above the clouds and jump off and bash someone off the other side of the ledge with a skyhook, then send a flock of crows to take out a few dudes coming after me, then shoot any other dudes that are coming after me. So how is this game not fun again?
2) Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan
Matt Rorie's anime alter-ego
OK, look. Wizardry-inspired dungeon crawlers aren’t very popular. But something about this particular game really struck me. It started out with a devilish grin derived from the stupidly hard (but very balanced) difficulty. Then it grew to a certain satisfaction from finding treasure boxes in the dungeon. Then I found that I’d finished drawing my first map and I felt even more satisfied with my amateur cartography skills. And then the game drew me even more in when I found that I had to lead gigantic, pissed-off bears to equally gigantic piles of logs so they would clear them out in their blind, ferocious, one-shot-my-entire-party anger (and then there’s something to be said for the satisfaction that comes from beating them using only auto-battle forty hours later). And then I managed to kill one of those FOE’s, incredibly over-leveled enemies that you often have to navigate around. Finally, I got to the first stratum’s boss, a massive red bear, and managed to take him down. And then I started to realize the crazy number of class and skill combinations I could have used to do that entire thing. The sheer number of skills you can mix and match to form tactics and strategies is pretty staggering, and that it’s all quite balanced makes the whole thing a very impressive mechanical achievement.
Make no mistake, though. This game is all mechanics, through and through. There’s no voiced dialogue, and not really a ton of dialogue considering the game’s length. There’s context given for why you’re doing what you’re doing, but just barely enough. The world is made up of square tiles that look the same. Sure, the game has an aesthetic and an art style, but that’s hardly relevant. I would play this game if its art consisted of nothing more than lines, because it would largely be the same game (though I’d rather keep the aesthetic, it’s not entirely pointless). And all of these mechanics are just extremely well-balanced. Difficult and brutal, but always fair. I don’t think I’ve ever been one-shotted, and I somehow almost always manage to escape from encounters with FOE’s if I accidentally fell into a fight with one. I do wish that the game’s leveling moved faster so that I could unlock more skills, and I do wish it didn’t take as much time to develop new party members, but those are pretty minor nitpicks. Etrian Odyssey is the best game I’ve played this year from a pure mechanics perspective.
Also the music is just plain awesome. All of it. I can't name any songs that I don't like hearing.
1) Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne
I bet this game makes for some... ah... "interesting" cosplays.
So where do I start with this one? It’s pretty much the game that got me into dungeon crawlers in the first place. It’s not first person but it might as well be, with clearly marked tiles all over the place, damage floors, floors with holes in them, random encounters, insanely hard bosses, and not really a ton of story. Actually, more on story later.
I did claim that Etrian Odyssey had better mechanics, but I’d tell you that this was the better overall package. The press-turn system in Nocturne sounds like something that wouldn’t lend much depth, but in reality it’s what makes this game’s battle system. Essentially, when you hit an enemy’s weakness or get a critical hit, you get an extra turn. If you miss or hit something it deflects, then you lose a turn. The enemy is also under the same rules. It’s also a game of buffs – like the press-turns, this sounds like a trivial difference but in reality, learning and knowing the buffs and debuffs is absolutely crucial to every boss fight past Matador. Weaknesses, strengths, buffs, and press-turns all play into everything you do and it’s such a brilliant combination. It’s also more difficult than Etrian Odyssey, and sometimes unfairly so. And it has a far fewer number of skills, which is why I said that it’s slightly less impressive mechanically.
It has everything else in spades, though. Did you ever think that a JRPG could have a lonely, oppressive atmosphere in a post-apocalypse where only five humans are left alive? No? Well, this is it. It’s one of the darkest apocalypses I’ve ever seen and it’s chock full of tragedies and a lack of hope. Forget The Last of Us, that world is going to get back on its feet. This world? It’s dead. And that’s pretty much the point. You exist for the purpose of choosing a direction for a new world, or destroying the world altogether and leaving only a blank wasteland. The story is pretty minimalist. You’re only given what you need to know, and nothing more. But the way it’s presented, and the world you’re placed into, is so original and unique and weird and striking and downright awesome, from top to bottom. It quickly became one of my favorite games of all time and I’d say that you should give it a try if you ever wanted a new spin on the post-apocalypse.
Remember that blog I did a while back and said that I was going to try and make it a more regular occurrence in an attempt to start completing games? Well, here's part two of (hopefully) many! Still not sure when and how often I'll be able to do this but I'll eventually get the ball rollin'.
UNCHARTED 3 SPOILERS IN THE PLOT PARAGRAPH. You'll know it when you see it.
If you've ever heard me say anymore than half a sentence about the Uncharted series, then you know that I think it's a fairly mediocre third person shooter with some occasionally witty dialogue and some pretty graphics. And Uncharted 3 does... absolutely nothing to change my opinion.
So where should I start delivering my thoughts on this game? Well, what about the good stuff? It's technically astounding that this game runs on the PS3 at a generally good framerate. It's quite a pretty game for a console game, and it's just full of stuff to gawk at. Well, it is if you've never played a PC game. You're right, I'm going there. Compared to the PC games that I played for quite a while before suddenly jumping interests to JRPG's, none of this stuff really made me go “wow, that looks good”. It always came with that “for a console game” qualifier”. Back to good stuff – the set pieces are often very exciting and interesting, at least until you leap off a ledge you thought was the right one but wasn't because the game sometimes doesn't do a good job of directing you where you need to go when you're being chased/chasing someone. Or maybe until you try to make a jump but don't quite make it and think that you're supposed to go somewhere else, only to find out that the original jump was the right one and the game just decided to let you fall that time just to be a dick. Or maybe you weren't entirely sure which ledge to leap to because some look like they can be jumped on and some can't. All right, all right, I said mediocre and not bad! The dialogue is mostly well-written and good enough, and the characters are generally consistent and likable. Except... I'm kidding, there's nothing more to say on that front.
So what about the bad? Well, nothing really strikes me as actually-bad, just plain mediocre. The shooting controls (as compared to other console shooters, not the mouse) feel awkward and unrefined, for one. They're OK, but popping off headshots feels like an exercise in luck and frustration instead of honed skill and precision. Considering that some enemies have nutty amounts of health unless you put lead in their craniums, that can be quite frustrating. Lucky me, I played the game on Very Easy and didn't have this issue – but I know it's there! It's really not hard to tell that on higher difficulties, this game's balance is completely fucked. Shotgun dudes and riot shield dudes might just be “a bigger nuisance” on the lower difficulties but if they're anything like they were in Uncharted 2 – which I did beat on Normal – then they just feel cheap and unfair, not refined and well-balanced. The actual meat of this game's gameplay simply isn't very good.
I've already gone on for what I feel is too long, but there's one more thing I want to talk about – plot. The plot here is something of a mess. Threads are brought up and dropped without explanation on occasion. Talbot, the secondary bad guy, keeps disappearing in street corners and gets shot at least once without any repercussions, which is brought up several times but never resolved. Marlowe, the Big Bad, pulls a card that says “tower” out of Cutter's jacket and says something along the lines of “I knew this would happen! The cards say so!”, as if she had some way of predicting things, just before trying and failing to kill him. Some middle eastern guy who talks about a genie shows up to rescue Drake out of nowhere and is barely characterized. You spend the first half of the game with Nolan North, I'm-too-old knockoff Danny Glover, Niko Bellic, and that chick that got eaten in half in Pitch Black, and those latter two disappear completely for the last half of the game. It just feels like something that was cobbled together from notes and haphazardly thrown into some sort of sensical order. It's not without sense and I was never at a loss as to what the main plot thread was about, so as far as video game plots go you might even say it's a good baseline – but captivating fiction this is not.
Well, here I am stuck with a dilemma. I have had P3P for a long time but when I last started it, I dropped it in favor of something else. Two weeks ago, while playing Nocturne, I picked it back up and decided that I wanted to play it on the big screen in HD on the PS3. So, naturally, I bought it there, knowing that I would have at least one major issue with it.
The PSP version has a trimmed-down “real” world setting, where instead of running around and seeing people, you see a static image and move a cursor around it. It's essentially a very advanced image map. Sort of. In concept. Anyway, all you get for characters are static images and there are no anime cutscenes, two things that take a lot of personality away from the game after playing FES. I tried to go back for reasons that I will elaborate on in the next paragraph, and all I could think of was the aimless running in circles while I decided what to do next and seeing the surprisingly good animations for a PS2 game and then those little anime shorts and those crazy emoticons which added some character to the, uh, characters as well as the game. They do a fairly good job of delivering the story to you on the PSP but it's often obvious that this is not the way the game was originally meant to be played. Sometimes it's even hard to know exactly what's going on in certain scenes because the action itself is heard and not shown.
So why not play FES? Why would anyone pick the PSP version over the PS2 one? Because FES includes the completely baffling decision of not allowing you to control your entire party, at least not in the traditional JRPG menu way of “here's your characters skills, pick which one you want him to do”. Instead, you've got “tactics” that you can set – rather ill-defined tactics, I might add, and not really much in the way of customization – and this just doesn't make up for the ability to say “Main, do this; now Junpei, do this; now Mitsuru, don't freaking cast Marin Karin, Diarama Akihiko because he's nearly dead again.” It ends up in this scenario where you do one move and then you watch the rest of the game play out in front of you instead of doing anything yourself. The PSP version was completely rebalanced to allow Persona 4-style “control your whole party” to even out the visual novel-esque telling of the rest of the story and the fact that part of me wants to drop the 25 hours I've put into FES just to do this reveals how much I wish I could control my whole party. Now that I've said all this, I must be completely frank – the teammate AI generally does a good job of things and it generally helps me instead of hinders me – but “generally” here means “it occasionally screws up in a way that I never would have”. Not that I don't screw up but I have never knocked a game for my own screw-ups.
Do I recommend that you play Persona 3? Absolutely, without a doubt. It's original, it's interesting, and you should absolutely check it out when you've got the chance. I just think it's such a shame that a version that includes both full party control and the “real” world isn't available; you'll have to pick the issue that you would rather deal with, and to be honest I kind of wish I would have stuck with the PSP version. There's no turning back now, though, and I don't regret my time with FES.
(So I had planned on posting this Sunday evening, but when I sat down to post it I had the belated realization that it would probably be gone Tuesday morning, when the new site launched)
Turns out that when you've got a job and you adhere to the "I ain't spendin' sixty bucks on every game" life philosophy, you can afford a surprisingly large number of games. Problem is, I haven't beaten many of the games that I've bought, so I've gathered quite a backlog for myself. It's annoying, some of these games I've barely even got past the tutorial of and a few are ones I've never actually played before. So, you guessed it, this is just something of a backlog-blog where I play a game until I either beat it or just plain have no interest in it anymore and deliver some of my thoughts on it here. Maybe if I have some outside reason to stick to a game, I'll stick to it better?
Anyway, here goes a few of my thoughts on three games I played last week. One I completed, one I didn't (hence the "'til I just can't anymore" clause above), and one which has no real endgame. I'll try to edit this and put some images in here, but no promises - I'm already afraid the site will eat this top part and I'll have to repost the whole damn thing.
Q.U.B.E., henceforth referred to without the periods and caps, because fuck that’s hard to type, is a first person puzzle game in the vein of Portal, which seems to have popularized them. Apart from Narbacular Drop, I can’t name any that existed before Portal. But not many of them seem to understand that it’s the story and dialogue that kept people involved in Portal, not just the mechanics and puzzles, though most of us had fun with those too. Qube is pretty cool in that it just tells a very abstract story. There was intended to be one, with voices and everything, but instead you just run through these super sterile environments and then… well, stuff happens. Not a ton of stuff, but stuff nonetheless. Still, that stuff won’t draw you in much. You should come up with your own little story to liven things up a bit.
So what about the puzzles themselves? Well, the game isn’t really structured like Portal. There are several different areas with different ideas, and once you pass an area that’s it. That never comes up again. That means the beginning of the game shows you the basics, and then the next area introduces a new mechanic and challenges you with that, and then scraps it for something else entirely. The only things that ever stay the same are base mechanics. And I can’t say that is entirely a bad thing, but I also can’t say that I wasn’t a little bit disappointed that there wasn’t some final puzzle that combined all of these things. Nope, there’s the last puzzle to the last room with the last mechanic and then PRESTO! You move onto the finale, which is just one big and awesome set piece. And it is, indeed, awesome – but for all the brain-bending puzzles you just solved, there isn’t a single one that’s the brain-bendiest.
Qube isn’t that long, at only three hours, maybe four if you suck at puzzle games. Two if you’re really good at them. This is fine by me – any longer and it would get kinda boring. No, what we have here is a short little puzzle-game snack for a rainy Saturday afternoon, with a very satisfying little showpiece at the end to reward you for your hard work.
Red Faction Armageddon
This game is the perfect case for “just ‘cause it works right doesn’t mean it’s good”. The developers didn’t seem to understand that the mere presence of a mechanic does not make it interesting. The Gravity Gun would not have been as awesome as it was if Gabe & Co. just gave it to you and never gave you any reason at all to use it. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Red Faction Armageddon does. Guerilla kinda had the same problem, but it was nowhere near as bad because there was this entertaining open world to destroy stuff in and, while the game didn’t seem to particularly care if you did or did not destroy things, it at least designed areas where abusing the shit out of Geomod could be advantageous. Here, destroying things with your rocket launchers, melty-guns, and the Magnet gun often seems to hinder you more than help you. More than once I’ve died due to accidentally tripping over broken materials in a dark fucking room with aliens jumping all over the walls.
Speaking of that magnet gun, let’s discuss what is potentially the only interesting thing about this game. You put a magnet on one thing, another magnet on something else, and the first magnet takes everything in its near vicinity to the location of the other magnet. Now imagine being in a large room, attaching magnet A to small building A, and then attaching magnet B to big bad generic alien B, and watching the entire small structure slam into the bug. Sound great? Now repeat it ad nauseum. In the time that I played this game, I never once came across an actual reason to take out the magnet gun. There is one other interesting mechanic – if you mess up, you can hold a button to shoot a sort of short-range repair beam to put something back together. You would think that the developers would have, I dunno, made some puzzles or some interesting set pieces combining these two things, right? Right? Nope. That the mechanic was introduced to solve the problem of players fucking their progression over is not a bad thing; that such an interesting mechanic was never used beyond “repair this generator” is a terrible thing.
We could talk about the terribly boring aliens, the repetitive level design, the dull writing, and everything else about the game, but I’ll just say this: The game’s damning fault is that it is boring. Not that it’s terribly designed, like Daikatana; not that it’s buggy, like Big Rigs Over the Road Racing; not that it’s bad but has a certain charm to it, like Deadly Premonition. It’s (and I know this word is overused) simply uninspired. There is nothing to this game, it’s a shell of a game without any meaty insides. All the right parts are there on the outside, and they’re fine, but once you dig in you find… nothing. At all. That I can say that about a product from the same developer as Saints Row the Third, something with a very obvious idea and vision, is baffling.
Let’s talk about something positive next!
So I’ve kind of flirted with Minecraft several times since my brother got it and downloaded it onto my laptop, now on my computer. And by “flirt” I mean I’ve played it several times but never really completed much of anything. I get really excited and I start coming up with huge, grand ideas, I start gathering resources and tapping away…
…and then I give up a week or so later to go do something else. I should probably moderate myself more when playing this, but when that bug hits it’s a pretty bad one. I just can’t stop thinking about how I’m going to decorate my blocky new home. Right now, I’ve set up a local server and my brother and I are building an underground house. At first I had this grand idea to clear out an entire mountain but decided to build it way underground. Why? Well, because our big mine is actually a deep, natural waterfall that we found that goes pretty far down. We just go into the cavern where it’s located and drop all the way down to a pool, around which we have furnaces, crafting benches, an enchanter thingy, an anvil, chests stacked full of stuff… anyway, I thought it might be a great idea to have a house down there and so that’s what we’re doing! Can’t say whether I’ll finish it or not, but this project is miniature in comparison to my previous idea of “build a gigantic castle in the middle of a massive body of water on top of floating dirt blocks that had an area of 128x128.”
This was kind of an odd year for gaming. You'd expect the likes of Halo 4, Assassin's Creed 3, and/or Mass Effect 3 to top everyone's list - but instead, most people are putting the likes of Journey and The Walking Dead in their number 1 spots.
If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that my top games would have been these, I'd have probably laughed at you. In fact, I didn't have much interest in actually playing any of them, but I eventually did and they are all great. But before I really start, I have to give props to the biggest surprise of all, and that is a little JRPG called Chrono Trigger. I don't even generally like JRPG's a whole lot - I usually get five hours or so into one before I get tired of something and give up - but this one was different. It has become one of my favorite games of all time now that I've finished it, but since neither it nor its DS rerelease were released this year, I can't really put it on this list. I also can't make this blog post without mentioning that game. Play Chrono Trigger at some point!
One last thing - there are some games this year that were kinda disappointing, but still did some interesting things that I wanted to give mention to. That section of this post eventually became too long to fit in here, so I made a different blog post and it is here if you have any interest in it.
And, without further ado, I present to you Believer258's Top Five Games of 2012.
Number 5: Journey
Between the shockingly creative thread title and the under-mentioned pick that is Journey, you must be reeling from all the originality here, which is a shame, because Journey deserves a whole lot of attention. It’s not so much a game as it is an audio-visual treat that you interact with, and boy is it wondrous. Gorgeous vistas, excellent sand and lighting effects, and some great set pieces that do not at all rely on quick time events are what make this what it is. Well, that and one other thing – the co-op. Now, this game could stand on its own without the co-op, but its inclusion makes it even better. It’s hard to describe why it’s such a great addition. You’re walking along this desert and suddenly someone else who looks very similar to you starts beeping and you begin looking around and exploring together. Really, there’s not much reason to except to find things that extend your scarf, but I found myself doing it all the same. Certainly it’s short, at only an hour and a half, but that’s because you’re supposed to play it in one sitting. And when you do play it, make sure it’s at a time when it can have your full and undivided attention for that whole hour and a half.
I’m actually going to recommend waiting the least amount of time possible to play this game despite it being number 5 on my list. I seriously doubt that its co-op is going to have any sort of real longevity and if you wait too long, that part of the game simply won’t be active due to everyone with an interest in it already having played it and moved on. Again, the co-op isn’t necessary to make Journey what it is – but it does do a fair bit to improve the experience so get it now if you have a PS3 on hand.
Number 4: Forza Horizon
I’m not big into racing games. Occasionally I’ll get an itch to go ‘round and ‘round a track and get first place, but that’s usually something that goes away after a few races in something. But this was a bit different. Forza Horizon does a good job of giving the goings-on some context and it’s more than just one sentence, too. It isn’t a story, per se, at least not a good one, but the whole game feels like a racing festival is going on. There are actual characters running it, there are actual characters in the races (though they're pretty flat), and your racer is referenced sometimes (though he’s never given a name, just a generic face). It’s just enough context and story to give it a summer party-like feeling, but not so much that it ever gets in the way of actual racing, and the racing itself feels really good most of the time. Meaty cars like classic American muscle feel heavy and like they could take a beating, light and quick to accelerate cars really feel pretty quick, and the class designations do a pretty good job of making sure you don’t take an old, heavy Mustang into a race with a lot of tight corners. If I have any real complaints about the game, it’s that there’s a ton of loading. Otherwise? Nothing much bad to say about it.
Number 3: Torchlight 2
I’ll admit, I’ve never really gotten into loot games. You just do a whole lot of clicking on things and often have to go back to town and sell most of the junk you’ve collected. But Torchlight 1 was a game that I liked for a longer amount of time than I expected, and Torchlight 2 is a game that I’ve really liked, and I’m not entirely certain what they do different from other ones. Granted, I haven’t played many, but it must be something other than the loot. Maybe it’s the generally soothing music, or the consistently colorful and cartoony look and tone of things, or the way the combat feels whenever I blast a giant cannon or smash something with a massive wrench and they gib. And the things I dislike about loot games weren’t gone, but in both games they are greatly alleviated, most importantly the inventory, which in this game is pretty big. When that inventory gets full, you can fill up your pet with all of the stuff you don’t want and send him back to sell it, as well as send him back to town to buy a bunch of potions and scrolls in case you’re low on either.
There’s still no single thing that Torchlight 2 does to really differentiate itself from other click-y Diablolikes, but I do know this – I had to tear myself away from three and four hour sessions of Torchlight 2 multiple times, something I haven’t had to do with any other game this year.
Number 2: Doom 3 BFG
Whoa, wait – this game is 8 years old? What is it doing here? Well, honestly, there’s only one game this year that I enjoyed more and I can’t help but give this game a high spot. Some people really don’t like it, and I can see why, but man, I did. I was never truly terrified, but the atmosphere and the enemies really kept me on my virtual toes. The game design holds up pretty well for me in pretty much every respect – the shooting is satisfying, the levels feel natural and easy to navigate without needing a waypoint, and that lighting is still pretty good. It’s a little too easy, granted, and the Cyberdemon is definitely way too easy, but Doom 3 is a fantastic game as far as I’m concerned; not quite flawless but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of all of this game – Doom 1, 2, and the Doom 3 expansions included.
Note - yes, I know about the Chrono Trigger thing above. But this particular rerelease actually came out this year, and this is the version that I played. I also played the Xbox version to completion this year, making this the only game on here that I have completed twice.
Number 1: Sleeping Dogs
No single game this year impressed me as much as this one. Obviously, that’s why it’s my number one pick. It doesn't do anything wholly original, but everything here is interesting and worth doing for some reason or another. It’s a refinement of many ideas rather than an original concept, and those refinements are things that other games should pay attention to (*ahem* Rockstar and their controls in any game). The fighting that makes up most of the game feels refreshing when put against the melee of most open world games, the story is one you’ve heard before but its presentation and the characters within are easy to care about and, in some cases, feel really sorry for. Really, I won’t list off the game’s entire list of good features because, well, all of them are very well done and worth seeing. Play this game!